The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

December 7, 2023

Organ-specific aging, uncovered

No two people are exactly identical in how we age, and even within one individual, some of our parts age faster than others—often driven by organ-specific diseases, like hepatitis in the liver or Alzheimer’s in the brain. An estimated one-fifth of all people suffer accelerated aging in at least one organ, according to a new study from Stanford University. Analyzing proteomic data from 11 organs across 5,676 adults of various ages, they found accelerated organ aging increases a person’s risk of dying by 20–50 percent and that accelerated aging of the heart in particular raises the risk of heart failure by 250 percent. The researchers say their work presents a new, “simple and interpretable method to study organ aging,” which can predict diseases and the effects of aging. Nature

Fecal transplants for cognitive enhancement?

Just in time for this week’s feature story, new research demonstrates an important link between the gut microbiome and brain development. Scientists at the University of Cordoba and the University of Granada in Spain show that as early as six months of age the composition of microbes in the guts of infants is associated with their cognition, and babies who score higher than average on cognitive tests tend to have healthier, more diverse, and more balanced microbiomes. In a very preliminary but nonetheless exciting result, they showed (in mice) that transferring gut microbiome samples from infants who have better cognition promotes memory. Could the same thing work in humans? Cell Host & Microbe

A wearable device for continuous digital health monitoring in low-income and remote regions

Realizing the revolutionary diagnosis-and-treatment promise of digital medicine rests not only on measuring a person’s physiological data and analyzing it on the back end—but also on coming up with the tech needed to transfer the data to-and-fro. This is especially problematic in many rural and low-income settings, which may lack basic resources like electric power and have huge gaps in connectivity and wireless infrastructure. Now scientists at the University of Arizona in Tucson have designed a wearable device that’s 3D printed, capable of hands-free wireless recharging, capable of uninterrupted communication, and able to transmit data continuously over long-range to a hotspot up to 15 miles away for seven days or more. No satellite infrastructure or line-of-sight relays needed. Their device enables “high-fidelity acquisition of skin temperature and heart rate over weeks, seamlessly, in low-resource settings,” the scientists write. PNAS

A biosymbiotic long-range device in field trials in the Sonoran desert. Tucker Stuart and Max Farley

Anti-fentanyl antibodies could prevent overdose

The idea of protecting somebody from a disease by injecting them with antibodies has been around for a long time. Passive immunization, as this approach is called, is more than 100 years old, and in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was tried as a method of protecting people against the coronavirus. Now researchers at Cessation Therapeutics in San Diego and Harvard Medical School in Boston are suggesting this very old approach to immunization could help with an entirely new epidemic: the opioid crisis. Could giving people antibodies targeting fentanyl protect them against accidental overdoses 3–4 weeks later? Early experiments with their compound, dubbed “CSX-1004,” look promising. It would have to prove safe and effective in clinical trials before becoming widely available, but rat and non-human primate studies reported this week establish its feasibility. Nature Communications

Treating snake bites with lasers

A provocative new study this week shows that it may be possible to treat venomous snake bites with low-power lasers. Doctors at Amazonas State University in Manaus, Brazil, conducted a randomized clinical trial involving 60 people who suffered bites from the common lancehead pit viper Bothrops atrox, the most prevalent venomous snake in the Brazilian Amazon. The phase 1 trial showed treatment with lasers in a hospital setting could feasibly be administered, that it was safe, and that it was effective at reducing muscle damage and local inflammation caused by the venom. “This clinical trial will help to prepare the ground for a larger, more definitive trial to improve treatment for this neglected public health problem,” the doctors write. Some 5.4 million people worldwide are bitten by snakes every year. About half of those bites are from venomous snakes, and an estimated 81,000–138,000 people die from them. JAMA Internal Medicine

Cultivated magic mushrooms lack genetic diversity

Examining the genomes of 38 different wild and 86 different cultivated strains of Psilocybe cubensis magic mushrooms, researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland have discovered that commercial strains of the psilocybin-containing psychedelic shrooms lack genetic diversity. This is due to their domestication for human use, the researchers say, and their work comparing cultivated strains with more genetically diverse wild strains in Australia promises to lead to improved strains with more favorable genetics for cultivation and psilocybin production. Two of the authors are co-owners of the Queensland, Australia company Funky Fungus, which is aiming to do just that. Current Biology

This photograph shows the “B+” strain of cultivated magic mushrooms grown at Funky Fungus. Alistair McTaggart